“You don’t eat native oysters at this time of year but you can eat rock oysters all year round. You only eat native oysters when there’s an ‘r’ in the month.”
Top chef and restaurateur Mark Sargeant is explaining the rules of consuming these much sought-after slippery, briny delicacies, which have become big business on the Kent coast.
The Whitstable Oyster Festival has been running since 1985, but the cultivation of oysters in the area began during the Roman occupation and the festival can be traced back to Norman times when local fishermen would hold a thanksgiving service in the summer months.
The British native or ‘flat’ oyster spawns from May to August and is unpalatable during this period but the more common rock oyster, which was introduced from the Pacific specifically for farming, is shucked in abundance at the oyster festival.
The seven-day event in the Kent coastal town kicks off on 27 July and includes the ‘Landing of the Oysters’ parade, during which the day’s harvest is brought ashore for a formal blessing and then delivered to local restaurants. There will also be a food fair and an oyster eating competition. The event will culminate in a harbour-side fireworks display.
Staff from Rocksalt, one of Sargeant’s two Folkstone restaurants, will be serving up haddock burgers and pots of cockles and whelks from a stall in Whitstable’s harbour.
But the logistics of setting up a stall for his other restaurant, ‘posh chippy’ The Smokehouse, proved to be rather too complicated: “With all the deep fat fryers and stuff, it’s quite difficult to set up a portable fish and chip shop for a small festival.”
The 39-year-old, who worked as head chef at Gordon Ramsay’s Claridge’s restaurant before branching out on his own, grew up in Kent and thinks the area has a lot to offer foodies: “It’s a great county: we are surrounded by fantastic coastline so we get superb fish and shellfish but inland there are some really good farms too.
“Whitstable is a big foodie hub. There’s JoJo’s, the Whitstable Oyster Company and Wheelers Oyster Bar, which is one of the oldest restaurants in the country. One day we’d like to open a chippy in Whitstable.”